Outdoor enthusiasts are shrugging the wintertime blues and trailblazing their way into the snow-covered mountains on snowmobiles. Breathtaking views, frozen waterfalls and glistening ice formations are just a few reasons why many adventurers feel the area’s pristine scenery is more spectacular in winter than in summer.
“It truly is a winter wonderland around here,” said Ken Wolverton of the Spokane Winter Knights snowmobile club. “Being on a sled allows you to see country like you’ve never seen it before.”
In some of the more remote corners of the Northwest, this mechanical form of sledding is a necessary form of winter transportation. But for most, snowmobiling is an exhilarating way of effortlessly traveling long distances in the crisp winter air.
Washington boasts over 2,400 miles of groomed trails. About 650 of them are within an easy drive of Spokane. Idaho maintains about 5,000 miles of groomed trails, and northwest Montana, which has become a snowmobiling mecca in the past decade, has 3,000 groomed miles in a system of 26 trails.
In recent years, family snowmobile vacations have grown so popular they have started to rival some of the more conventional winter recreation activities. Surveys show more than 80 percent of snowmobilers consider it a family sport. As a result, some ski resorts have adopted programs to cater to snowmobilers.
Selkirk Tours offers excursions at Schweitzer Mountain Resort, near Sandpoint. “We get a lot of skiers who are looking for an alternate activity on their vacation,” said Chris Flanigan, president of Selkirk tours. “But the majority are families who come up just for the snowmobiling.”
All of these tours are guided and leave from Schweitzer village. Rental snowmobiles go for $35 for one person and $50 for two riders on a 1-hour tour. For a half-day journey, the cost is $70 and $20 more for an additional rider.
Orton Two Cycle offers full-day guided tours at Lookout Pass ski resort in Idaho. The cost for a full-day adventure on the three different groomed trail systems traversing the Idaho/Montana border is $125.
“We get people from all over the country.” said Bill Orton, owner of the tour company. “They’re mostly winter tourists who want to add a little extra spice to a ski vacation.”
Reservations can be made either through the shop or by calling Lookout Pass.
If you don’t have a friend or family member with a snowmobile and you can’t afford to buy one, the cheapest way to try out the sport is to rent.
Kirk’s Lodge, just outside Mount Spokane State Park, rents snowmobiles on weekends and during the week if you make reservations in advance. They have 10 snowmobiles for use on the 70 miles of groomed trails that traverse Mount Spokane State Park. Cost is $30 for a 1-hour excursion, $60 for a half day and $100 for a full day of riding. The first tank of gas and a helmet are supplied but a $200 deposit is required. Extra riders need to pay an additional $10.
“The beginner will find snowmobiling just like riding a car. Keep on the right-hand side of the trail and let the machine do all the work,” said Linda Kirk, owner of the lodge.
In North Idaho, two shops rent machines to all ages and abilities of riders near Priest Lake, where there are more than 300 miles of groomed trails in the Priest Lake area. Action Marine/Priest Lake Yamaha, have eight rental that go for $82.50 for a full day of riding during the week and $100 on weekends. Indian Creek Snowmobile has a dozen 1995 Arctic Cats for rent with rates varying with the size of the machine and the day.
“We welcome the beginner,” said Keven Mackaben, manager of Indian Creek. “Our machines are pretty self-explanatory, you just squeeze the throttle and you’re off.”
The average price at Indian Creek is $80 on weekdays and $95 on weekends. They will also deliver their machines to nearby resorts and trailheads. Helmets, instructions and a copy of the regulations are supplied at all three locations, but the renter should remember to bring warm clothes, a camera, gloves and boots and must be at least 18 years old with a valid driver’s license.
To legally operate a snowmobile in the state of Washington, you must be at least 12 years old. In addition, riders between the ages of 12-16 must pass the state snowmobile safety education class. This can either be taken through a correspondence test with the Washington State Parks Department or in a day class with an instructor. The Spokane Winter Knights, one of the largest snowmobiling clubs west of the Mississippi, sponsor these classes periodically.
Other state regulations follow the laws of common sense. You must come to a complete stop before crossing a highway, you must have a working headlight and taillight and you cannot disturb wildlife or vegetation with your snow machine.
Every snowmobile also must be registered. The annual cost is $17 and includes a Sno-Park permit that is required to use most state trails. License fees and a portion of the state gasoline tax are returned to the counties to support grooming programs and trail maintenance.
Ever since the first snowmobiles appeared in the late 1920s, millions of people have pursued the sport as a wintertime cabin-fever reliever.
Snowmobiling has since ballooned into a multimillion dollar industry. It is estimated today that more than 6 million people participate in the sport every year. Last season there were more than 22,000 registered machines in Washington and 27,000 in Idaho.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: SNOWMOBILE CONTACTS: Clubs Spokane Winter Knights (509) 324-6333.< Coeur d’Alene Snowmobile Association (208) 772-5551. Snowmobile rentals Kirk’s Lodge, (509) 238-9114 n Indian Creek Snowmobile (208) 443-2292 Action Marine/Priest Lake Yamaha (208) 443-3883 Selkirk Snowmobile Tours (208) 263-1521 Orton Two Cycle Tours (208) 556-4402 Other Forest Service Regional Avalanche Hotline (208) 765-7323 Snowmobile grooming Hotline (509) 456-5786 Winter Knights Hotline (509) 483-SNOW.